It can’t be easy to renovate a place beloved because it never changes. And it’s not just Holden Caulfield, though one can’t help hearing that quote from The Catcher in the Rye when entering the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. You remember the one: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. Nobody’d be different.” But something is different now. And many things have moved. In spring 2021 the new 11,000-square-foot Mignone Hall of Gems and Minerals will officially open after a pandemic-induced delay.
The day the space closed for renovation in 2017, the lamentations began. Essays appeared about the vanishing of New York’s “weird hidden glen.” Instagram posts highlighting the film rooms, the dark corners, the multilevel presentation stands, the carpet—many people felt deeply attached to that carpet. So before you go back, be prepared: The carpet is gone. Nostalgia is real here, in this hall and in this museum, and those in charge know it. Museum president Ellen Futter visited these halls as a child herself. And after 40 years, curator George E. Harlow is familiar with the visitation patterns. “The old idea was you came as a kid with your parents, then you came with your school group, and then when you had your kids you’d come in with them, and then back again as a grandparent.” The gems and minerals collection began as a gift from J.P. Morgan in 1922, and the J. Pierpont Morgan Memorial Hall of Minerals and Gems, on the fourth floor, opened as the primary display and storage area. (It was there in 1964, with the help of an open window, that a heist of museum treasures led by a man named Murf the Surf occurred. More on that in a minute.) In 1976 the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems debuted on the museum’s first floor.
Those who made the pilgrimage to Central Park West to see the Star of India or the Patricia Emerald post-1976 will hardly recognize the place. Those two historic stones—a 563-carat star sapphire lifted in the aforementioned heist (and returned after a brief stint in a locker in Miami) and a 632-carat emerald, respectively—are still proudly displayed. So is the Singing Stone, a massive block of vibrant blue azurite and green malachite that was first exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But the 3,000-pound block of labradorite was not there before, and neither was that wall of rock that turns neon in ultraviolet light. For the first time there will be a hall dedicated to temporary exhibitions, the debut show being “Beautiful Creatures,” which chronicles the tradition of gem-studded fauna from such houses as Cartier, Tiffany, and Van Cleef & Arpels, curated by jewelry historian and editor Marion Fasel. The most striking difference between the old hall and the new, Harlow says, is in the experience of being in it, “the spaciousness, the openness of it. The old hall was sort of designed to be like entering a mine.” Two towering amethyst geodes from Uruguay light the way now, chosen for their ability to showcase the power of mineralogy, their “incredible bling,” and to provide a teaching moment. “The full story is right below each geode. It takes millions of years before these become amethysts,” Harlow says. And so begins the connection between the minerals and the gems that live together here, the key to understanding it all.
The Hall of Minerals is organized for wonder. Wandering through it, you’re stopped by the almost kryptonite glow of each of the specimens. There are rough opals from Mexico, something called a Goethite from the Aegean, a hunk of moonstone from Myanmar. “It is much more open. Cases are larger, with much more display. There are passageways and avenues and vistas. You won’t be stymied by the business of the hall. You can move—suddenly someone can just say, ‘Let’s look over there.’ Serendipity will take over,” Harlow says. “You will stumble onto something. The minerals are historical and scientific, with uses you might not know about that are critical to our society. And the beauty! The main hallway cases, with the most attractive contents, are in the center. More scientific are against the hall.” The big draw for many people, he admits, even though he is a geologist, is the Hall of Gems, where cases are filled with cut and polished stones from around the world arranged behind glass in necklace-like formations—tourmaline, aquamarines, sapphires, rubellites, opals. “People will know the gem hall, and they want the beauty and glitter,” he says. “That will be the premier magnet.” But the goal is for that eureka moment when visitors connect the minerals to the gems—when they realize that amethyst geode becomes a cabochon ring, when they imagine how that block of labradorite is cut and polished into a strand of beads, and understand what a tourmaline looks like when it is first pulled from deep inside the earth, before it becomes the centerpiece of a rivière. That flash, when the connection between the mineral and the gem is made clear, when the relationship between the natural world and the one you are standing in inside the museum, is the goal.
“I’ll never forget my feeling of excitement while standing in the bare, rough construction space, hard hat on, imagining how the museum’s gems and mineral collection could be showcased not only to educate visitors but also to awaken a sense of awe and wonder of the natural world,” says Allison Mignone, the vice chair of the Museum Campaign (and namesake, along with her husband Roberto, of the new hall). “The hall will feature 5,000 specimens from 95 countries—with over 1,100 minerals and 450 gems from our collection to be exhibited for the first time. Whether on walks through Central Park or on trips to Montana, where I grew up, our family has always explored the natural world. It is inspiring to imagine that over millions of years pressure in the right environment can create diverse and rare treasures such as those featured in these halls. These halls, and others in the museum, take science off the page of textbooks and into the real life experience of countless families and students. That is certainly what they have done for our four daughters,” Mignone says. “When visitors leave the hall, we hope the richness of the collection will have inspired them to look at their own surroundings, outside the walls of the museum, and ask questions. Why is a ruby red? How does a rock fluoresce? What is a gem pocket? Why does this rock sparkle? What is a geode and why are they different colors? What is a Windex-blue gem?”
Wonder and discovery, and learning too, are also what president Futter hopes the new space will inspire. Education is a recurring theme in the conversations I had with the new hall’s leaders. Along with science, of course, education is the core mission of the museum, as Futter sees it—beyond the tradition of school field trips, though those are expected to resume in earnest soon. “These minerals are used as tools of technology and as personal adornment,” she says. “They are connected to the human experience.”
There are reminders of these connections in plaques and interactive displays throughout the hall. Did you know about the green tourmalines of Maine? Or how kaolinite, a clay mineral, is used to make paper and ceramics and kitty litter? Or that there were iron mines just 30 miles north of New York City and limonite in Staten Island? Or what a cat’s-eye stone does under a flashlight? And it has to be a flashlight, Harlow says. “I would encourage people to bring their own light. It’s well lit, but there are things you can see by moving light around. An iPhone works, but you might need a little more. I always carry lights with me, but I’m a crazy geologist. And what if the lights go out on the subway? There’s a big labradorite column that’s best seen with your own light. They glow like peacocks. Like all great museums, we are focused on the richness of the exhibit and the approachability,” he says. “We have tried to make it about stories and content. We have a case devoted to the Bisbee, Arizona, copper mining area, where striking workers were taken away to New Mexico. Not all stories are positive, but they are historical.” The curator says he knows he has hit the mark when he sees nose prints on the glass. “That’s when I know, when they leave their face behind.”
The opening of the new hall will be one of the first landmark museum events in pandemic-era New York, and Futter sees it as a symbol of New York’s renewal. It is, for her, a testament to the resilience both of this city and of nature. As does Mignone: “The American Museum of Natural History is a true landmark and treasure,” she says. “During these dark times, we hope that this investment in one of the city’s greatest institutions will signal to the world that many of us here will work to ensure that New York will remain the world leader in cultural, scientific, and educational resources. It’s part of our family’s commitment to, quoting Hamilton, the greatest city in the world. Now more than ever we’ve seen the tremendous need for broad public scientific education, and the museum does a great job in constructively engaging the public with some of the most pressing global challenges.”
And that brings us back to where we began. Holden Caulfield does accept that something changes each time you visit this museum, and that would be you. This time the museum itself has been altered. As has this city. As have we all.
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